How to Buy a Data SIM Abroad

Tools & Tech| Views: 2523

As digital nomads, the internet is the single most important service that allows us to keep working. The only problem is, when you arrive in a new country, you’re often rushing around to find a cafe with Wi-Fi and spending way too much money on drinks.


What do you mean by Data SIM?

By data SIM, I mean a SIM card that you will be primarily using for the internet rather than texts and phone calls. Some countries and networks have data only SIM cards but even if they do include calls, they’ll only be calls within that country. Using Skype or WhatsApp for calls is usually cheaper and easier.


Why buy a Data SIM?

Having a data SIM for the country you’re staying in is a huge bonus. Not only are they often available at airport arrivals when you land, but they’re usually instant use – that means you can use them to find accommodation, food, taxis, local info and the all important Google Translate.


Why not buy an international SIM?

International SIMs are great for travellers who don’t stay in one place for very long at all. But you will always find better deals in-country. If I’m in one country for more than a month, I buy a local data SIM (apart from EU – see below).


How do I buy a Data SIM for the country I’m going to?

Your number one priority is to get an unlocked phone. Chances are you already do, but if your phone is locked to a network or you think it might be, you need to get it unlocked.

Do you need Standard, Micro or Nano SIM? While many networks provide all three in a pop-out card, some sell them separately.

I usually do a bit of research about SIM cards before I go to a country and here’s a few steps that will make your life a lot easier:

  1. Find out the major mobile networks for that country
  2. Check the network coverage of each major network for the area you’ll be in. This is important if you’re travelling to rural or isolated areas.
  3. Take a look at – this website is great for finding the exact SIM you want for any country.
  4. Do a Google search or check out the WIKI above to find out how that country sells SIM cards. For instance, do you have to buy them from mobile network outlet shops or can you pick one up in a newsagent?


No more EU Roaming

If you’re living or travelling within the 28 EU member states then your data SIM situation just got a whole lot easier. From 15th June 2017, roaming charges are banned.

This means that if you have a data SIM from one EU country, you can use the data on it in any other EU country for no extra cost. Note that I said data, it doesn’t necessarily apply to calls and texts.

Always read the terms and conditions of your SIM before buying and if you need more information then check out this great article on Money Saving Expert


SIM not working?

  • Check that your data roaming is turned on if you’re using an EU SIM. Your phone may come up with a warning about excess costs but this is moot as of 15 June 2017.
  • Mobile phones work on GSM frequencies and if you have a tri-band or quad-band phone you’ll almost always be fine. However, due to the differences in GSM frequencies used by North, South and Central America, some phones may not work. This is mainly CDMA phones in the USA – these may not work in some other countries including South America. Confused? Most modern mobiles are multi-band and will work anywhere – get one of these.
  • Each network has its own APN (Access Point Names) This should be updated automatically when you insert your new SIM card. However, if your SIM isn’t working, your APN may not have updated. It differs from phone to phone but you should be able to find APN Settings somewhere in your network menu. If these settings show a different network from your new SIM, you can look up online the APN for the new network and input it manually. It sounds weird but it’s really easy.



Using your data SIM as a hotspot/tether means creating a Wi-Fi network from your phone and connecting your laptop or other device to that hotspot. You’ll be sharing your data with this other device/s.

Because laptops use data much more heavily than phones, networks tend to put limits on hotspot data even if you have unlimited mobile data. Being able to hotspot is super useful for the digital nomad when you quickly need to access your laptop and I always make sure any new SIM I buy allows it.


Kitiara Pascoe is a British freelance writer and journalist. She lives on her little boat and works while sailing around oceans and exploring mountain ranges. She’s been a digital nomad for 5 years and has no intention of stopping anytime soon. You can follow her on Twitter and on Instagram.

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